Customs and etiquette

Social interaction

Compared to many cultures, the Dutch are reserved in public and refrain from extreme displays of physical affection, anger or exuberance (except at/after certain sports events). The Dutch don’t tend to strike up casual conversation with strangers, but will respond readily when addressed and alwåays try to be helpful when asked a question. In conversation, the Dutch are very direct, use a lot of eye contact and don’t consider it impolite to express criticism or speak on their own behalf. They allow – and even expect – the same behaviour from the person they are talking to. This shouldn’t be interpreted as rudeness. Most people in the Netherlands speak English because it is taught from primary school on, but fluency differs depending on age and background. German is also widely spoken.

Stating your name – both first and last or your last name only – when you introduce yourself or are introduced by someone else is considered basic protocol. When introducing themselves the Dutch also shake hands with every person in the room.

As a rule, the Dutch do not like visitors to stop by unannounced. If you know someone well you can call in the morning to ask if you can come by later that day or evening, but normally you should call further in advance. The greater the social distance between you, the longer in advance you need to call. Grown children even call their parents – and vice versa – to see if it is all right to come by. It is considered impolite to enter a house without being invited to. Once inside, people tend to stand around and chat for awhile until the host or hostess suggests that everyone sits down. If you want to sit down right away, ask where first.

Fashionably late
Conversely, do not invite Dutch acquaintances to ‘drop by any time’. Set a specific time and date and mention what kind of refreshments or food you intend to serve. ‘Come by next Tuesday at two for coffee’ and they will be there at the stroke of two. ‘Fashionably late’ in Dutch culture is waiting for the bell on the clock tower to stop chiming before you ring the doorbell.

Since the Dutch do not like ‘surprise’ visits, the coffee will be ready to pour when you arrive. Yours should be too. An offer of coffee (or tea) is the absolute minimum expected when someone visits your home. Even the workmen who come to fix a leaky tap will be offered a cup of coffee. Suffice it to say that there will also be biscuits or, if this is a special occasion like a birthday or anniversary, cake or pastries. Always wait to be served. It’s considered very impolite to help yourself. And don’t forget to offer your Dutch guests a second round of coffee, tea or biscuits; they will not help themselves.

Gifts when visiting
A visit to someone’s home invariably calls for a gift. Flowers, biscuits, or sweets are almost always appropriate. If you think that your host or hostess might be dieting or diabetic, take flowers. Flowers are quite inexpensive in the world’s largest flower exporter and are a welcome present.

The arrival ritual for good friends and family members at a Dutch home catches many foreigners by surprise. Ladies begin first, kissing each person there three times – the number is significant – on the cheek (right-left-right). The men follow, shaking hands with the other men and kissing all the ladies lightly on the cheek three times (right-left-right). Foreigners can get by with shaking hands instead of kissing.

On the phone
Unlike many countries where some form of ‘hello’ is sufficient, the Dutch always identify themselves immediately when they answer the phone. They either use their first name (Jan), or last name (Jansen) or both (Jan Jansen). The caller is also expected to identify him or herself before stating the aim of the call. If you’re using English or some other commonly shared language to communicate on the phone in the Netherlands, you should adopt this custom. It is considered rude to answer or initiate a phone call saying only ‘hello’.